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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Documentary

In several of his letters, Guthrie takes the time to document some of the things he's seen in his life. In his autobiographical essay he describes his home town, from its street fights to its square dances. In a letter from January 22, 1941 he describes a mining town in California and his drive out there from New York. He describes New York City in a letter called Vote for Bloat, and in a letter from Los Angeles, Guthrie gives his take on public opinion at the time.

In a letter from September 19, 1940, Guthrie records the story of a childhood dog that was poisoned by a neighbor. He closes the same letter with the following statement:

"All I know how to do alan is to just keep a plowing right on down the avenue watching what I can see and listening to what I can hear and trying to learn about everybody I meet every day and try to make one part of the country feel like they know the other part and one end of it help the other end..."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (page 8).

  • How conscious do you think Guthrie was of the fact that he was documenting everyday life?
  • What do you think he saw as the purpose of this activity?

From 1935 to 1947, the federal government's Department of Agriculture hired photographers to make an unprecedented documentation of rural America through its Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations (RA and FSA).

Over 160,000 of these photographs are available in the American Memory collection, America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945.

During this same era, Guthrie was also documenting rural America, as well as working America, and city life in his songs and prose.

Listen to some of Guthrie's songs and view some of the FSA-OWI photographs and answer the following questions:

  • What are the similarities and differences between the photographs and Guthrie's songs and prose?
  • To what extent do they document the same subject matter?
  • To what extent do they indicate similar view points or opinions?
  • What do Guthrie's letters indicate about why he thought it was important to document the things he saw and heard?
  • Why do you think that the FSA and its photographers thought that it was important to document rural America and the mobilization effort for WWII?
  • Why might people have been particularly motivated to document this era?
  • What role did Guthrie's penchant for documentation play in his accomplishments?